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London is full of life and greener than many think.
  • Building a better London, for people AND wildlife

    Untouched plasticine waiting to be moulded, image from internet commons

    The start of a New Year always fills me with positive energy. It’s like unwrapping a shiny new block of plasticine when you were a kid; it’s all clean, flawless and full of potential, filling your senses with its scent, texture and malleability. But whose fingerprints will successfully dominate the creation that will be formed by the end of the year as the plasticine sets hard?

    Tuesday January 6 marked the day predicted by the Greater London Authority for the capital’s population to exceed the last record of 8.6 million people, set in pre-WWII 1939. More people now live in cities worldwide than live in rural settings and this changes the way we manage the world around us.

    Last September on BBC Radio4, Sir David Attenborough talked about promoting women’s rights to save the world, as without exception, “where women are given the rights over their own bodies. Where they have political independence; where they have medical facilities to enable them to control the number of children they bear; where they are literate; where they have the vote. When those things happen, the birth rate falls”.

    Human overpopulation is not a specialist subject of mine, nor is it one the RSPB champions, but it is interesting to hear someone with Sir David’s experiences and understanding of the world highlighting it as an important issue.

    Growing populations do pose challenges, such as the need for more housing, more food and water, increased waste management and energy creation. All of this does impact on species conservation as it reduces the amount of area available to support wildlife. The good news is that we now have the knowledge and technology to enable gains for people and nature in new developments and renovations.

    Barratt Homes is one of the many big developers that recognise this too, and they’re working with the RSPB and others to ensure their new homes incorporate space for wildlife and benefit from what’s called green infrastructure, where landscaping and planting helps manage water and improve air quality. Having access to greenspace is also known to improve people’s physical and mental well-being, making Barratt’s homes more attractive to buyers. It makes you wonder why all other developers have not adopted the same approach.

     It’s relatively easy and saves money in the long-run. What’s more, you can easily copy many of the ideas. Replacing solid outdoor surfaces with material that allows water to drain through reduces run-off to the drains and swelling waterways. Having hedges, trees and shrubs improves air quality, provides space for wildlife and reduces the impact of storms.

    Imagine this multiplied across London with existing homes and gardens, then add the potential new developments can bring, and you can see how easily London could become a world leader in green development and how this can create new jobs and new opportunities while making it a nicer place to visit for people and wildlife. To achieve this, we must all leave our prints in the plasticine.

    A plasticine cityscape created by N16 scholl children, courtesy of the Newham Recorder

  • Are sparrows trying to tell us something

    We're all aware of the old canary down a coalmine story. Miners would drop tools and flee if their caged canaries fell from their perch as it indicated the presence of poisonous gas.

    Well, there is now a European study underway to establish if the decline of our common house sparrow, down 68 % between 1994 and 2009 (BTO Breeding Bird Survey data), is in any way linked with air pollution.

    We know that a lack of food and nesting space are part of the reason, and have long suspected other factors of having an impact. Now the European Commission has published a preliminary paper on the subject. They've found that house sparrows living in highly polluted urban locations have significantly lower haemoglobin and anti-oxidant capacities, which they claim indicates the birds have been exposed to high concentrations of toxic chemicals. Haemoglobin is an important part of red blood cells. In birds and most other animals, it transports oxygen from the lungs around the body.So, do you have a gas mask in my size? Image courtesy of Mike Lawrence.

    This comes as a group of UK MP's recommend schools, care homes and hospitals should not be built near main roads to avoid "tens of thousands" of premature deaths caused by what they describe as the "invisible killer" of air pollution.

    The Commons Environmental Audit Committee chair, Joan Walley says officially 29,000 people a year in the UK die as a result of air pollution, but that doesn't take account of NO2 levels from diesel engines. Another independent UK Government report due out shortly estimates there is an additional 30,000 deaths a year caused by NO2 in the air. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson's official estimates put the death toll from air pollution (not including NO2) at 4,267 in 2008.

    The implications of the EC report on house sparrows is that they may be a natural indicator of pollution which we've overlooked. While the findings are in line with what we know of air pollution, it's too early to say whether it's a contributory factor in the decline of house sparrows.

  • Square Meal – why we need a new approach to food and farming

    The Government’s Farmland Bird Indicator tracks the fortunes of a range of bird species which live and breed in lowland farmland, such as turtle dove, skylark and yellowhammer. Its recent publication revealed yet another drop in numbers.

    The term ‘Farmland bird indicator’ sounds rather dry and technical and the story that this indicator tells is perhaps hard for many of us to relate to. This is because the story is one of loss – loss on such an enormous scale that it is hard to visualize, but which has seen the transformation of the countryside in a generation.

    Throughout the UK, over 44 million pairs of breeding birds have gone in less than 50 years.

    They have vanished at the rate of one pair every minute.  

    Nowhere have these losses been more pronounced than on the land which produces our food.  And it isn’t only birds that are disappearing. Last year’s State of Nature report, an important stock take of UK wildlife, found that for many groups, the picture is bleak if things continue as they are. Despite the clear evidence that changes in agriculture have been a major cause of wildlife declines, successive governments have failed to get to grips with this issue or stand up to the vested interests that have a stranglehold over food and farming policy.

    The recent Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform process is a classic example. It’s estimated by some that the average UK household spends over £400 paying for the CAP each year, but precious little of this money is directed towards those farmers, many on the edge of commercial survival, who are doing most for society as a whole. The recent reform was a great opportunity to change this in favour of farmers doing their bit to support wildlife. Instead the beneficiaries of the status quo prevailed and the €1 billion a week of taxpayers’ money spent on the CAP across the EU will deliver little in the way of public benefit. 

    Most frustrating of all has been the emergence of the ‘food security’ argument that claims the priority is to maximise UK food production to feed a growing global population.. which means there isn’t room for wildlife. This argument is fallacious 

    The Square Meal report

    on many levels and ignores the fact that many people are already unable to access adequate, nutritious food despite there being an oversupply[1]. Clearly this is not a problem of there being insufficient food to go around. Yet there is little political will to address the environmental degradation and inequality of resource usage that actually jeopardises food security, especially for the most vulnerable.

    This is why we are excited by a new initiative which saw a range of organisations coming together to call for a re-framing and widening of the debate on food and farming, so that all of us can have a say in how the UK is farmed.  

    'Square Meal: why we need a new recipe for farming, wildlife, food and public health’ is a new report published by a collaboration of ten UK organisations with expertise across food, environment, farming and health. It calls for stronger government leadership and an integrated approach recognising food and farming are central to many of the pressing social and environmental challenges we face.

    Most importantly, it provides a positive vision for what our food and farming system could deliver if the right decisions are made. An approach based on improving health; reconnecting with food and nature; good food for all; sustainable, resilient farming; and a return of colour and sound to the countryside.

    Read the report and have your say at the Food Research Collaboration website.

    [1] World Food Programme (2014). What causes hunger? 

    This is a guest blog, written by the RSPB's Senior Agriculture Policy Officer, Abi Burns.